Directed by Robert Duvall. Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton. October Films.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: A depiction of murderous violence; menacing situations; marital infidelity.
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The Apostle (DVD)
By Steven D. Greydanus
A sensitive cultural ethnography of the exotic, much-maligned world of Southern Pentecostalism; a complex study of a character whose many contradictions startlingly combine sacred and profane dimensions; a spiritual exploration of the inscrutable workings of guilt and grace: The Apostle—long labored over by writer, director, producer, and star Robert Duvall—is all of these.
Duvall’s film contemplates the trajectory of Eulis “Sonny” Dewey, a charismatic holiness preacher from rural Texas whose utter confidence in Jesus is unshaken by his proneness to womanizing, domineering behavior and anger—until mounting crises and a shocking act of violence set his life spinning out of control. On the run in the backwoods of Louisiana, Sonny makes an extraordinary overture for redemption, taking on a new identity and devoting himself almost recklessly to the work of God.
Duvall persuasively brings Sonny’s contradictory elements together to create a convincingly realized portrait of a man with whom we cannot quite sympathize nor quite condemn, a man who wrestles with God with the emotion and frankness of a Job, yet without Job’s righteousness. To humanize this unpromising figure and his unfashionable world, and indeed to locate the hand of grace at work in both, an act of faith and art worthy of Flannery O’Connor.
Farrah Fawcett and Miranda Richardson give transparent, vulnerable performances as two women in Sonny’s gravitational field: one his emotionally bruised but increasingly assertive ex-wife; the other a guarded but impressionable woman on the rebound. June Carter Cash has a memorable bit part as Sonny’s elderly mother, a woman who seems to understand the contradictions of Sonny’s heart, and whose complicated relationship with her son, glimpsed in a startling bit of maternal guilt theater, is posed as a question rather than an answer. John Beasley brings thoughtful moral authority as a retired pastor who might have become a “magic Negro” in a less nuanced film, but here regards Sonny with cautious openness, without setting out to save his soul or guide him to the right path.
Aided by non-professional supporting actors cast from the culture depicted onscreen, Duvall leavens documentary-like detachment with empathy, neither turning a blind eye to human foibles nor holding them up to ridicule. As the end credits roll and the drumbeat of Sonny’s zeal goes on, we may or may not like the film’s hero, but we understand him better, and perhaps ourselves as well.